One could argue that such was the quality of our squad in the 2000/01 title-winning campaign, that no complaints would have been made had all 11 spots in the Team of the Year been occupied by a Fulham man. But, nonetheless, the fact that more than half the winners plied their trade in SW6 demonstrates how ruthless that side was.
The spine had a real Whites feel to it, with Maik Taylor in goal, Chris Coleman in defence, Sean Davis and Lee Clark running the centre of midfield, while Louis Saha was up top. Add to that the presence of right-back Steve Finnan, and Fulham fans could look at that Team of the Year with a real sense of pride – especially as the awards were voted for by fellow professionals from that division. In other words, players appreciated the talent they were facing when they came up against Jean Tigana’s men in that campaign.
The remaining spots were taken up mostly by Blackburn Rovers players, with Henning Berg, David Dunn, Matt Jansen and current Whites winger Damien Duff all allocated spots, while Birmingham City’s Martin Grainger was named best left-back.
Starting between the posts, and Taylor’s title as the league’s best goalkeeper came as little surprise, not only due to his 18 clean sheets, but it was also a commonly accepted principle that the Northern Ireland international was the most reliable shot-stopper outside of the top flight. Excellent at claiming crosses and also capable of pulling off remarkable reflex saves, this was the second time he’d been named in a Team of the Year, with the first coming in another championship-winning season at Fulham in 1998/99. Incidentally, this was another prolific year in terms of the league’s best XI, with five spots taken up by Fulham players; Taylor, Finnan, Coleman, Rufus Brevett and Geoff Horsfield.
Unfortunately for Maik, he became a victim of the Club’s ambition following our ascension to that of Premiership outfit, when our summer marquee signing happened to be one of the world’s top goalkeepers, Edwin van der Sar. However, Taylor continued to fight for his spot until he eventually left to join Birmingham – initially on loan – in August 2003. Ten years on and despite not officially hanging up his gloves, the 41-year-old hasn’t played a professional game for over a year and was drafted in as Northern Ireland’s goalkeeping coach for the latter stages of their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign.
Moving into defence, Finnan was absolutely adored by the Fulham faithful and made the right-back spot his own during his five seasons at the Club, clocking up more than 200 appearances in the process and missing just one league game in 2000/01. A footballer in the Sascha Riether mould in that while he was primarily a defensive player, he also offered an extra dimension going forward with a crossing ability that any winger would have been proud of. His first season in the Premiership saw him named in the Team of the Year once again – the first (and still only) time a Fulham man has been given such an accolade.
Such was the Republic of Ireland international’s talent, it wasn’t long before some of the country’s biggest clubs came sniffing and he moved on to Liverpool in 2003 where he enjoyed a trophy-laden spell, scooping FA Cup and UEFA Champions League winner’s medals, amongst others. Brief stints in Spain with Espanyol and on the South-Coast with Portsmouth followed before he retired aged 34, with his concluding appearance coming in the FA Cup Final defeat by Chelsea.
The fact that Coleman made the Team of the Year when his final outing came on New Year’s Day 2001 just underlines the quality the centre-back possessed, and how highly thought of he was by his peers. Our record signing when almost £2m was exchanged with Blackburn for his services, Coleman was a natural leader who marshalled the backline superbly. Indeed, 2001 was the sixth time he’d been named in a PFA Team of the Year – twice at Swansea City and four times with the Whites.
Of course, his career was sadly cut short when he was involved in a serious car crash, but he demonstrated his character when he threw himself into coaching, eventually becoming Fulham Manager and leading the Club to a then highest ever top-flight finish of ninth. Now proud boss of Wales, Coleman is assisted with the national side by his former defensive colleague, and close friend, Kit Symons.
Our English duo in midfield was arguably the most revered in the division in 2001, with the experience and leadership of Clark brilliantly complementing the youthful exuberance and boundless enthusiasm of the 21-year-old Davis. Both were clearly top-flight players in waiting and they played a pivotal role in the middle of the park – along with John Collins – in getting us there. In addition to chipping in with seven goals apiece, they each epitomised the archetypal box-to-box midfielder and didn’t allow their opponent a moment’s respite, with their determined displays seeing both rewarded with the captain’s armband in their Fulham careers.
For Clark, the Team of the Year award was a poignant replica of when he was given the same accolade for Newcastle United when they won the second-tier title back in 1993. Injuries disrupted his top-flight career with the Whites and after a brief spell back on his native Tyneside, he embarked on a successful coaching career which now has him managing Birmingham. Davis’ career took him to Tottenham Hotspur after Fulham, before enjoying a fruitful spell at Portsmouth. He then moved onto Bolton Wanderers but suffered horrendously with injuries and was forced to retire last year. Sean now works closely with the Club in the hospitality lounges on matchdays, and also pens a regular column for the official website.
The final Fulham player to make Team of the Year was perhaps the most obvious name, as the division’s top scorer. Saha notched 27 goals in the league in 2000/01, four more than Blackburn’s Jansen who took the other striking position in the end-of-season awards. A debut goal got his Whites career up and running, and by mid-September he’d already reached double figures in only eight matches. Just 22-years-old, Saha had all the makings of a star striker; he was athletic, powerful and clinical. First Division defences simply couldn’t cope with him as his goals – along with invaluable contributions from teammates Barry Hayles and Luis Boa Morte – fired Fulham into the Premiership.
Three goals in his first two matches the following campaign suggested he was set to pick up on the goal trail where he left off, but it wasn’t really until the 2003/04 season when he truly established himself as a top-flight finisher. His wonderful form saw Fulham sitting in the Champions League spots come Christmas, but he departed soon after when the Club received a record fee from Manchester United for his services. He scored regularly for United, and Everton afterwards, too, before signing short-term deals at Spurs, Sunderland and Lazio. He retired in the summer on his 35th birthday.